JINGLE ALL THE WAY
The cashier inattentively swiped the various items across the reader. When she had finished, she flashed a mirthless smile and solemnly mumbled that the amount totalled £34.50.
Maureen noted as she handed over her debit card that the cashier had a melancholic look about her, with dull grey eyes. She wondered if she looked hard enough, would it be possible to view her own reflection in those dark eyes? And if so, would she like what she saw?
The cashier imperceptibly sighed inward and slid the card reader towards Maureen instead of taking the plastic.
“You got contactless, yeah?”
Maureen shook her head. Pretended not to notice the visual transformation from disdain to outright loathing on the cashier’s face. As she inserted her debit card into the reader, she wondered if the cashier’s countenance would likely fall into a scowl if it was not singularly held up by the invisible strings of retail etiquette. An awkward moment of silence ensued as she punched in her PIN code, followed by another agonising pause for the receipt to be printed out. When the machine instructed that she could remove her card, Maureen wished the cashier a Merry Christmas. The cashier did not reciprocate the sentiment.
Maureen exited the book-shop and made her way with unsteady feet to the pavilion area in the middle of the shopping complex. The pain in her lower back was beginning to twinge again, and the load from the shopping bags was indiscernibly growing heavier with each step. She sat down on one of the benches and let out an exaggerated sigh. It was cold, and she vigorously rubbed her hands together, noticing the dark pink welts on her palms where the bag handles had left their mark.
The pavilion area was open topped, and the approaching twilight casted a dim cobalt tint around the square as if the colour saturation had been chilled out of it.
She took a moment to absorb this section of the shopping centre. Fairy lights had been draped along the higher balconies, and in the distance a choir could be faintly heard singing ‘Silent Night.’ A group of girls were weaving in and out of each other’s paths, hollering at one another in the kind of high-pitched way that indicated to Maureen that they were not yet teenagers. They still had an air of naivety to them. One of the girls in the group still had the kind of puppy fat around her jowls that Maureen knew would soon tighten; in a couple of years she would have womanly curves instead of a pudgy muffin-top.
She likened herself to the girl when she was at her age; hanging copper rivulets, porcelain skin and an inviting smile that everyone wanted to talk to – but when she looked at herself in the mirror these days, she noticed that her hair had no volume, the skin on her cheeks and under the chin sagged, with thin lips and mouth perpetually frozen in a frown.
A small herd of boys started to cross their path, hushing the girls into whispered titters and sure enough Maureen noted their veiled nonchalance disintegrate as soon as the boys were out of earshot. She wondered for a moment how old Jack was. She chided herself for not knowing instantly. A mother should always know these things. He was seventeen. Of course he was, he’d just passed his driving test.
There was a bronze effigy that sat in the middle of the square of a father, son and mother sitting on a bench. They seemed to be smiling, but Maureen couldn’t be so sure now, the weather having eroded much of the features away. She tried to remember the last time that Arthur had taken her anywhere, to be treated to a night out on the town or to go a fancy restaurant, but the memory was muddied in her mind. A good couple of years at least, she thought wearily.
If someone were to say to her a long time ago that Arthur would be the man she would marry, that they would be together for thirty two years, that they would plan to have a child and when that child finally came along they would have another, only for the plan to be dashed when Maureen experienced a miscarriage, that their breakfasts and dinners would slowly devolve into long, drawn out silences, because not talking about certain things was better than speaking at all, that they would start to sleep in separate beds, and that their son would only on occasion grunt at them as conversation, then Maureen would have laughed, and would have told you to stop being so clichéd and ridiculous.
But, thirty-two years later, Maureen would have likely slapped the younger version of herself and told her that life had a funny way of embellishing the clichéd and ridiculous.
She tried to bat away those thoughts from her head. Wouldn’t help with the Christmas shopping. Peering into the plethora of bags nestled between her feet; she mentally ticked off present to person ratio. Books for Jack, as he loved reading. Check. M&S shopping gift card for her sister, Pauline. Check. Bottle of whiskey for Arthur. Check. Her face slightly contorted as her eyes darted over the sandy coloured liquid in the bottle. She hated him when he was drunk. Hated the way he looked at her with those accusing eyes when he’d reached a certain level. Stuffed toy for her niece, Clarice. Check. Some make-up and chocolate for later as a kind of ‘hey, everyone hates shopping at Christmas but you did it anyway’ reward. Check.
She was forgetting something. She knew she was. A small stabbing pain shot through her lower back. She shifted in her position, crossing her legs to shift the discomfort and noting her thighs rubbing together as she did.
“I know that look, dear.” Said a voice from beside her.
Startled from her shopping list catatonia, she was surprised to see two elderly women sitting on the bench next to her. She hadn’t even realised that they had sat down.
“You got the right old willies, didn’t you?” The other one said, and they both started cackling. Maureen gave a sheepish grin, and was about to gather her belongings when she felt a hand reverently clasp her arm.
“Sit down for a little longer, dear. You look like you could use it.”
Maureen was about to protest, was about to say something along the lines of wanting to get the last of her shopping completed and go home, but then she realised that she didn’t actually want to leave. To meet a son that barely acknowledged her existence. To a husband that felt repulsed by the sight of her. She closed her mouth, nodded at the elderly couple, and sat back down again.
She felt an ethereal-like calm take control of her body and for the first time in a long while she found herself smiling. The two elderly women were talking amongst themselves now, and Maureen noticed that the one furthest away from her had produced a scrapbook of some description.
“What was this young lad’s name again, Dot?” She was pointing at a picture that Maureen couldn’t see.
The woman closest to her, Dot, strummed her fingers against her wrinkly chin. “Hard to say, love.” She peered over at the picture that her friend was referring to. A wide grin came over her face, and as it did Maureen felt a surge of power and invigoration pulse through her body. Dot leaned into her friend and playfully shoulder-bumped her. “We did have fun that day though, didn’t we?”
They both started cackling again. Maureen felt prickles of electricity run down her neck. It was as if just being in the mere presence of these two elderly women was somehow lifting her spirits. She noticed that the thrumming pain in her lower back had now receded entirely.
Dot’s friend squealed with delight as her finger jabbed at another photo. “Remember this one? It was Christmas three years ago.”
Dot leaned over, examining the photo. “Like it was yesterday, petal. Oh he was so handsome in his Santa suit.”
“He was, wasn’t he?”
“He was a real hit with the ladies that year.”
They both chuckled again. Dot checked her watch.
“Come on, we’ll be late for the bus.”
And with that, they slowly stood up and waddled away. Maureen smiled as her eyes wandered from where they had left, back to the statue in the middle of the plaza, and then at a photo on the bench next to her. Intrigued, Maureen thought it had slipped out of the scrapbook. Perhaps she could catch up to them give it back, she thought, as she turned the photo over.
A man tied to a chair. He’s dressed in a Santa suit, with his face bloody and swollen. His eyes bulging and afraid. Although the image isn’t the clearest, Maureen instantly knows that the clumped mess of pink and red underneath the man’s chair has come from his stomach. Dot’s friend is standing next to him, all razorblade smiles, as she’s holding something up above the man’s head.
Maureen remembered with clarity what she had previously forgotten. She slipped the photo into her pocket, with renewed energy flowing through her.
It wouldn’t take long to find the nearest hardware store. Maureen pictured Arthur, probably asleep on the sofa now. Yes, she thought to herself. A nice hardware store. It was going to be a lovely Christmas.